Authors: Jean Toomer

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American poet

Identity: African American

Author Works


“Banking Coal,” in Crisis, 1922

Cane, 1923 (prose and poetry)

“Blue Meridian,” in New American Caravan, 1936

The Wayward and the Seeking, 1980 (prose and poetry; Darwin T. Turner, editor)

The Collected Poems of Jean Toomer, 1988


“Balo,” in Alain Locke’s Plays of Negro Life, pb. 1927


“Winter on Earth,” in The Second American Caravan, 1929

“Race Problems and Modern Society,” 1929

Essentials: Definitions and Aphorisms, 1931

“The Flavor of Man,” 1949


Jean Toomer published only a single work of lasting literary importance, Cane, but that one volume has earned for him a distinguished place in American literary history. He was born Nathan Eugene Toomer in Washington, D.C., on December 26, 1894. His father, Nathan Toomer, abandoned his wife, Nina Pinchback, before their son was born. Raised in his maternal grandparents’ home, Toomer was influenced by his grandfather, Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback, a proud and once-powerful man who had served as lieutenant governor of post-Civil War Louisiana during Reconstruction. Through much of his adolescence, the young man was known as Eugene Pinchback, and it was only when he began to pursue a literary career that he adopted his father’s surname and changed Eugene to Jean.{$I[AN]9810000750}{$I[A]Toomer, Jean}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Toomer, Jean}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Toomer, Jean}{$I[tim]1894;Toomer, Jean}

Jean Toomer

(Beineke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)

Light-skinned and racially mixed, P. B. S. Pinchback had made his political career as a black; however, during Toomer’s childhood the family lived in an exclusive white neighborhood on Washington’s Bacon Street. Racial identity was an issue that Toomer considered carefully, and by the time he went to college, he had rejected identification with either race; instead, he embraced the label “American.”

When Toomer was a teenager, the family moved to a black neighborhood, where he finished high school at the segregated M Street High School. After graduation, he attended a series of colleges: the University of Wisconsin, Massachusetts College of Agriculture, the American College of Physical Training, the University of Chicago, and the City College of New York. He never stayed at any school long enough to earn a degree, and he switched his academic interests several times.

Toomer’s early interest in literature was inspired by his Uncle Bismark, who spent hours in bed surrounded by an eclectic array of books. It was not, however, until Toomer was studying at the City College of New York and had begun to meet literary figures such as E. A. Robinson, Waldo Frank, and Van Wyck Brooks that he thought seriously of writing as a career. Disappointed by his first efforts, Toomer returned to Washington and accepted an invitation to manage a school in Sparta, Georgia, for a few months. In Georgia, Toomer shared the life of the poor blacks who were served by the school, and he was moved by this introduction to rural black life. Encouraged by Frank after his return to New York in 1922, Toomer turned his experience in Georgia into Cane. The manuscript, which was finished by the spring of 1923, showed the influence of contemporary prose experimentation, combining prose and poetry in a three-part structure that begins in the rural South, moves to the urban North, and then returns to the South. In Cane, Toomer attempted to bridge the gap between the rural black heritage and the New Negro of the 1920’s, creating a complex intermingling of black and white, rural and urban, primitive and civilized. Cane did not sell well, but it was a striking critical success, particularly among the other young black intellectuals who were forming the basis of the Harlem Renaissance.

Much of the critical reaction angered Toomer because it focused on his role as a black writer, a racial limitation that Toomer rejected. In reaction, he cut himself off from the literary crowd that had fostered his career. Although he published a few stories during the 1920’s and a long narrative poem in 1936, he was unable to find a publisher for his other literary work. In the summer of 1924, Toomer traveled to George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff’s Institute for Harmonious Development of Man in Fontainebleau, France. From that time until his marriage to Margery Latimer in 1932 Toomer worked as a teacher of the Gurdjieff philosophy, first in Harlem and then in Chicago. In 1934 after the death of his first wife in childbirth, he married Marjorie Content, and they settled in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. In 1940 he joined the Society of Friends, for whom he wrote several pamphlets. After 1950, he was generally incapacitated by illness, and he died in 1967 in Doylestown. Interest in Toomer was revived after Cane was reprinted in 1967. The general recognition that Cane is one of the outstanding achievements of the Harlem Renaissance guarantees Toomer a continuing place in American literary history.

BibliographyBenson, Joseph, and Mabel Mayle Dillard. Jean Toomer. Boston: Twayne, 1980. The first book-length study of Toomer, this volume is an excellent introduction to Toomer’s life, work, and place in American literature. After a biographical chapter, the book examines Toomer’s novel Cane and representative later works. Includes a bibliography.Byrd, Rudolph. Jean Toomer’s Years with Gurdijieff: Portrait of an Artist, 1923-1936. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990. A good introduction to Toomer’s years of studying orientalism and the mystical philosophy of George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff. It indicates that, although Toomer was an African American writer, his concerns were primarily spiritual and philosophical rather than social and ethnic. It is a fascinating account of one part of Jean Toomer’s life.Byrd, Rudolph. “Was He There With Them?” In The Harlem Renaissance: Reevaluations. New York: Garland, 1989. This article examines Toomer’s tenuous relationship with the writers of the Harlem Renaissance. It asserts that, although Toomer identified with many of the issues and social concerns being addressed by African American writers, his style, techniques, and philosophy made him something of an outsider and gave him a unique position among the major African American writers of the 1920’s.Fabre, Geneviève, and Michel Feith, eds. Jean Toomer and the Harlem Renaissance. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2001. A collection of essays that re-examine Toomer, placing the novelist among his contemporaries in America and in Europe.Hajek, Friederike. “The Change of Literary Authority in the Harlem Renaissance: Jean Toomer’s Cane.” In The Black Columbiad: Defining Moments in African American Literature and Culture, edited by Werner Sollos and Maria Diedrich. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994. Argues that one of the main unifying elements in Cane is the concept of changing authority, which occurs in three phrases corresponding to the three sections of the text. Asserts that the work is a swan song for a dying folk culture and a birth chant for a new black aesthetic.Jones, Robert B. Introduction to The Collected Poems of Jean Toomer. Edited by Robert B. Jones and Margery Toomer Latimer. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988. Although this book is not about Toomer’s fiction, the introduction gives an excellent account of Toomer’s life and work within the context of the various phases of his writing and philosophical studies. In addition, it discusses the authors and poets who influenced Toomer’s life and writings.Kerman, Cynthia. The Lives of Jean Toomer: A Hunger for Wholeness. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988. This book gives an account of the various stages of Jean Toomer’s life and his attempts to find spiritual guidance and revelation throughout his lifetime. An interesting account of a fascinating life.McKay, Nellie Y. Jean Toomer, Artist: A Study of His Literary Life and Work, 1894-1936. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.Moore, Lewis D. “Kabnis and the Reality of Hope: Jean Toomer’s Cane.” North Dakota Quarterly 54 (Spring, 1986): 30-39. Moore’s article discusses the elements of “hope” within the context of the characters in Cane. In particular, he indicates that despite the repressive aspects of the society in which they live, Toomer’s characters are redeemed and indeed triumph over that society by virtue of the positive aspects of their humanity.Scruggs, Charles, and Lee VanDemarr. Jean Toomer and the Terrors of American History. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998. Provides critical evaluation of Cane and other Toomer works. Includes bibliographical references and an index.Taylor, Paul Beekman. Shadows of Heaven. York Beach, Me.: S. Weiser, 1998. Examines the lives and works of Toomer, George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff, and A. R. Orage.Wagner-Martin, Linda. “Toomer’s Cane as Narrative Sequence.” In Modern American Short Story Sequences, edited by J. Gerald Kennedy. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Discusses Cane as a modernist tour de force of mixed genre. Examines “Blood-Burning Moon” as Toomer’s ideal fiction construct that provides insight into the structural and thematic radicalism of the collection.
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